Now that things are (hopefully) calming down in Ferguson, with the help of appropriately attired Highway patrol officers, I think it’s time to come up with a better term for the use of military grade equipment far beyond what is necessary by local police forces. “Militarization” implies that they have been given the sort of training one would need to use these tools responsibly. Given the *spirit* of the Posse Comitatus Act (which a number of friends assure me is dead, but anyway…) which technically applies only to federal troops, but really sought to avoid the deployment of military style forces against the American populace, it seems counter productive to have people in such gear attempting to police an area. This is a concern that cuts across political lines. But we need another name… Instead of “Militarization” how about “Evidence of government subsidies for weapons manufacturers via local police agencies” or something?

I want to say that I have a great deal of respect for police officers and what they have to put up with. I’d venture to say that the times that law enforcement officers experience disrespect and respond professionally far outnumber the times when they react in an overly aggressive manner. For an important perspective on this, consider this blog post: Ferguson Perspective from a Cop’s Wife. The issues she raises are real: Cops do receive a great deal of disrespect and, due to the nature of their work, they often deal with the worst of society–or at least the worst behavior of many in society. My dad served on the North Carolina Highway Patrol, and I’ve heard him talk about being vomited on by drunks, spit on (and having vomitus mucus spit in his face), not to mention the need to subdue folks physically, without the benefit of non-lethal means like a taser.

The thing is, when you wear a uniform of any sort, people have a tendency to gauge everyone who wears that uniform (or similar ones) by the actions of a few (an ironic similarity to issues of race, I suppose), and there have been far too many examples of extreme response and flat out wrong doing lately. Sure, part of that could simply be due to the easy flow of information these days–we are constantly invited to live in fear, after all, since, as a basic primal emotion, it sells at least as well as sex. But regardless of the reason behind our knowledge of such events, i.e. they are happening more frequently or they are simply being publicized more, the climate means such things are bound to be noticed by the New Republic, the American Conservative, the Atlantic, The Huffington Post, the Daily Beast etc… In other words, publications that cut across a wide swath of the political spectrum. And what we have is–or should be–a disagreement about the appropriate means of policing, tactics, and the boundaries of what is appropriate in our communities, not a bash fest against Law Enforcement Officers.

With that as a baseline, I think it’s difficult to defend the tactics of the Ferguson Police Department in the face of these protests. Their demeanor and actions seem to have served to escalate the situation. In contrast, a change in tone led by the Missouri State Highway Patrol seems, at least for now, to have lessened tensions.

One of the things that struck me right off the bat about the Missouri Highway patrol, was the difference in the way they were outfitted for containing the protests and ensuring rioting does not take place, and the way the Ferguson PD was outfitted. Here are some examples of the Ferguson Police Department:

Compare that with the more traditional riot gear of the Missouri State Highway Patrol:

Perhaps as important as the gear in which the officers are outfitted, is the demeanor they are displaying. To go from firing tear gas to disburse crowds, to containing and directing them through participation, by walking with them, by listening, these are major differences. The demeanor of the Ferguson Police, and the equipment they have put to use have not been lost on a group well acquainted with military tactics and the importance of maintaining calm among a population: American Veterans. One Vet had compiled a “Storify” of responses to the events in Ferguson, and it is quite telling. Consider the sample below (the entire set is found at the end of this post):

There is another issue at play here as well: Ferguson is a small Police Department. I don’t have an details, but I’d venture to say that their pay scale is less than that of the Highway Patrol, and that there budget is smaller. I also know that many states rely on their Highway Patrol to provide crowd control in just such situations, and therefore the Highway Patrol has likely undertaken more training in how to deal with protestors and control crowds in a way that deescalates a situation rather than enflames it.

All of this said, I do think there are narrowly defined times when such equipment could be of great positive benefit to a police department. I just don’t believe that use is appropriately crowd–even riot–control. As one commenter as written:

To be sure, there is a legitimate police purpose to much of this military gear. When used properly, body armor and other protective equipment enables police to use less force; similarly, non-lethal munitions can be effectively used to quell a crowd with far less force and suffering than the alternative.

But when used as in Ferguson, this military gear transforms the police department into an occupying army, and enables the police to act with such speed and violence so as to destroy any meaningful right to peaceably assemble or address grievances towards government. The key difference lies in how the police choose to use this gear – whether as civilian police, or as infantrymen with badges.

The great irony is that in Iraq, we rarely employed such hostile tactics, generally only using force when attacked. As combat advisers, our mission was to build Iraqi police and government capacity, not to conduct offensive combat operations. We carried rifles, machine guns, grenades, and other firepower, and used it when necessary to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, Shiite militants, or others who attacked us.

However, we sharply distinguished between the Iraqi civilians we were there to serve and protect, and those militants we sought to defeat (and sometimes kill or capture). Towards the former, we adopted as friendly a posture we could, often removing our body armor and laying down our weapons in order to share tea or lunch, or doing whatever we could to show trust and build rapport.

If only the Ferguson police would learn from our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the paradox of force stated so succinctly in the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual: “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.”1

So, the biggest question is how abuse is addressed. Leaving aside the issue of race relations and race and the justice system (which are, admittedly, probably the biggest issues at the heart of what is going on in Ferguson), I want to propose two modest reorientations that could help (from my limited perspective).

First, the increasing reliance of many law enforcement agencies on equipment and tactics that can only rightly be termed overkill only serves to strain the relationship between the officers and the public. It is out of this alienation that an anti-Law Enforcement attitude emerges. Limiting the use of these paramilitary materials and teams to occasions that might legitimately call for them (that is, the sort of purposes for which SWAT was originally established, such as where there is an entrenched group, or any group with significant firepower etc…

Secondaly, the alienation between Law Enforcement and the general population could be helpfully addressed through creative solutions that both increase accountability and provide backup for an officer, should someone make a false claim against them. It could also serve as a means of building trust, and addressing the question of disparities in the way citizens of different backgrounds, races and ethnicities are treated by law enforcement officials:

there’s […] a growing movement in the United States to have on-duty officers use body cameras to record their interactions with the public. Police officers in Rialto, Calif., started wearing cameras in February 2012. The result? The volume of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous year, and use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent, according to the New York Times. The tactic adds an extra layer of accountability on police actions and creates a record that officers can fall back on if their account differs from that of an arrestee.2

At any rate, these are complicated issues, and I don’t expect to solve them with these ruminations. I do want to highlight the concern of mixing policing efforts with such equipment and tactics on a regular basis. Much better to limit their use.

Below is the storify containing the remarks of a number of veterans on the situation in Ferguson.

Finally, I’d ask that we pray for peace, justice, and healing for this community.

  1. “Ferguson’s cops are armed like I was in Iraq” from The Daily Beast []
  2. “Yes you can record the Police. And Maybe the Police should be recording the Police. The Washington Post []